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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Some Reservists Feel Pinched by New Duties

Military: Employees with cash-strapped Nassau County take a big cut in earnings when they go on active status.

November 25, 2001|EDWARD W. LEMPINEN | NEWSDAY

The first tower at the World Trade Center had just collapsed and the other was still burning and, in the whirlwind of crisis, John O'Shaughnessy was summoned from his job at the Nassau County, N. Y., jail into active duty with the U. S. Coast Guard.

Even after 15 years in the Coast Guard Reserve, O'Shaughnessy had never expected his life to be interrupted in this way, but then, who could have foreseen the Sept. 11 attacks? He hurried home, packed a few things, said goodbye to his wife, Netty, and raced to a Long Island base.

A couple of weeks later, O'Shaughnessy learned that he would be on active duty for a year--with his military salary only about half of his usual salary as a corrections officer. Suddenly, it seemed that serving his country would mean leaving Netty and their four children vulnerable.

And unlike other government employers, including New York state, financially strapped Nassau County says it can't afford to make up the difference.

"Basically, there's a risk that we'll lose our house and not be able to pay the bills and not be able to pay off the car," Netty O'Shaughnessy said this week. "And with four kids, it's hard--things come up. I hate to have to penalize them. . . ."

Officials say 126 other Nassau County employees are in reserve military units, including 70 police officers and five of O'Shaughnessy's colleagues at the jail. In a time of national crisis, the cash-strapped county has provided only limited protection for employees called into long-term military service.

Although the Sept. 11 attacks have robbed many government budgets, most have found a way to ensure that employees and their families do not suffer if they're called to military service.

"This is a situation that's so unique that we have no playbook to go by," said David Greene, Suffolk's director of labor relations. "Everyone is being called on to step up to the plate and do a little more, and Suffolk is stepping up and doing a little more."

A reservist typically trains throughout the year and usually is only activated in case of emergency. O'Shaughnessy, for instance, worked with the Coast Guard for one weekend every month and an annual two-week training stint.

As a machinery technician at the rank of petty officer, he earned about $75 for every day of training, his wife said.

Under New York law, a state employee has 22 work days of military leave per year with full state pay, and the same terms apply to government employees at other levels.

After the terrorist strikes, Gov. George Pataki struck agreements with state public employee unions to double the number of military leave days. For employees whose active service in the military or National Guard is longer, the state will make up the difference in salary through next Sept. 10.

"We must do everything possible to ensure that our employees who serve as part-time soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines need not worry about the financial security of their families," Pataki said.

In the private sector, the policy on offsetting pay losses by employees who are called up varies from company to company.

Although O'Shaughnessy declined to comment, Netty O'Shaughnessy said she and her husband worry how they will get by when his $60,000 salary from the jail is reduced to about $30,000 a year in the Coast Guard.

Michael Adams, who represents about 1,000 jail workers as president of the Sheriff Officers Assn., said some county officials have suggested that reservists should have known the potential risks when they enlisted.

That left Adams incredulous. "If you have someone serving their country in a time of war," he asked, "is that fair?"

Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta declined to be interviewed but through a spokesman said he would "support any legislation that would assist reservists and their families."

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